The Last Collection: A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel

Fashion as a reflection of history and nationalism (pre-WWII Paris, 1938-1940; 1940s-1954 Manhattan, with a post-war return to Paris): The high-fashion industry or haute couture is so much more than meets the eye in Jeanne Mackin’s newest historical novel set mostly in Paris in the years leading up to Hitler’s invasion of this colorful city, blackening it. Color – or the lack of it – is key to the story and the refined prose that effortlessly blends fiction with engaging historical details, Mackin’s trademark (see The Beautiful American and A Lady of Good Family).

In The Last Collection, Mackin adeptly takes advantage of the rivalry and stark differences between two leading fashion designers of the 20th century – Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli – whose clothing styles, personalities, and ideologies captured the conflicted moods and political climate in the lead-up to the Paris Occupation.

Ironic how Coco Chanel is still fabulously known for her elegant, smart black-and-white designs, whereas Schiap (as her friends called her; cool, intimidating Coco essentially friendless) is barely known outside fashion circles, though considered the more innovative and artistic. Her flamboyant-often-bordering-on-“bizarre” creations inspired by her friendships with Surrealist artists like Salvador Dali.

Coco Chanel silhouette by Marion Golsteijn [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elsa is the designer we come to admire. Generous, fun-loving, bold, and openly anti-fascist (though pro-Communist), she refused to cuddle up with the Nazis like Coco, a Nazi sympathizer and mistress, later revealed to be a spy. Two larger-than-life women who couldn’t be more opposite, yet both “very driven” and “very successful.” They left their marks on fashion, also “politics. And of course, love. The three primaries, like the primary colors.”

Those colors – blue, red, and yellow – form the novel’s three parts. One-page prologues introduce each part’s titled color, defined emotionally and historically. Mackin understands color so keenly you’ll wonder if she’s also a painter like her primary character, Lily.

Lily is the fictional go-between the real Schiap and Coco. She sets an overall melancholy tone to the prose, befitting those complicated times.

Blue defines Part I, “the most suggestive of paradox.” Despite impending war, late 1930s Paris was still holding onto its joie de vivre, seen in the legendary cafes, dance clubs, parties, follies, balls. People were ignoring or denying what was swirling around them as Germany invaded Poland, then Czechoslovakia. Mackin’s finely-tuned prose is remarkably disciplined. She doesn’t overwrite gay Paris, as a dark cloud was moving toward the City of Light.

Paris, then, is painted as a conflicted city, like Blue, the “color of longing and sadness, and yet it is also the the color of joy and fulfillment.” Lily personifies the sad, longing, nostalgic shade of blue, though Paris eventually re-awakens her.

The prose stays honed-in, even in Part II, Red, the unequivocal “color of love and passion” because red also means blood. So we continue to feel the uncertainty, anxiety, protracted waiting despite the happiness characters find as the onslaught is coming.

Part III, Yellow, is a color that warns and cries for help as fear bubbles to the surface. Defined also as the color of the Star of David Jews were forced to wear to separate them, determine their fate, the angst bursts as war descends on Paris.

Characters exemplify colors and themes. Like Paris, they’re also conflicted, complicated, entangled:

Lily: 1954 Lily opens the novel. She’s forty, working at the Manhattan gallery of a tremendously important art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, one of the Jewish characters. He (and his family) saved precious art stolen by the Nazis. Late 1930s Lily comes to know him in Paris, after she leaves a dreary existence in England teaching art to girls with compromised health at a boarding school her brother-in-law, a doctor, also works. Begrudgingly, he helped Lily get back on her feet securing her the job; no familial love as he blames her for the death of his brother, Allen. Lily accepts his scorn as she cannot forgive herself either for her role in some kind of an accident. You’ll learn what it is, later reminding us of the tremendous bravery of people during wartime.

Lily’s grief, Allen gone two years, is still so raw she hasn’t been able to pick up a paintbrush. She’s a fine art teacher we’re told by way of a former, now fully healthy student Gogo, Schiap’s real daughter. Nicknamed presumably for her flightiness, she’s always on the go, especially to the French Riviera’s yachting lifestyle. Schiap’s motherly love and protection exceeds her passionate career ambitions, one reason we like her so much. She seems to be the only one seriously preparing for the war that’s coming.

Charly: Lily leaves England when she receives an urgent telegram from her brother Charly saying he needs her. Lily adores “the handsomest man in Paris,” which gets him in trouble with women. The two were orphaned young, raised by an aunt in New York, so they depend on each other.

From the start, the prose is imbued with color, sometimes also referencing an artist’s work. Picture Charly picking Lily up at a famed Paris cafe in a “blue Isotta Roadster,” the shade of blue “Gauguin used to paint the Tahitian lagoons.”

Ania: Beautiful, graceful, and wealthy through a miserable marriage, fittingly dressed in Coco’s couture, is the woman Charly has fallen deeply in love with. Her personal life is a mess, so he needs a chaperone to be seen with her. Dangerous as she’s also having an affair with a high-ranking, historical German officer, and she’s Jewish. (Her parents live in Poland, the country Hitler invaded next.) Charly plans to take Ania to the ball of another historical figure, Elsie de Wolfe, so Lily needs a gown. She prefers Schiap’s colors as underneath her sadness is an artist who loves color.

Schiap: Takes Lily under her wings, expecting her to watch over Gogo and keep tabs on her nemesis Coco. One-by-one, she gifts Lily her designs to “armor” her, be her “good-luck charm,” fueling Coco’s bottomless jealousy as Ania starts wearing Schiap too, signaling how torn her loyalties are.

Coco: Lily connects Ania to Schiap but it’s Ania who opens the door for Lily to meet Coco, who’s flirting with having an affair with the same powerful German officer Ania is. Lily also meets his quiet driver, a minor character until he plays a vital role in the primary plot-line: whom to trust, whom to befriend, whom to love, how to survive. Coco is awfully alone despite her fame and fortune, enabling Lily to relate to both designers.

Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage: Head of German propaganda, intimate with Hitler’s plans. Mixed up with Ania, eyed by Coco, he’s one of many historical characters who frequent the Paris Ritz, where Coco lives in “luxury and privacy.” Here is where Lily feels the “desperation of people who sense there is much, too much to lose.” People who understand they’ll need to take sides before the war reaches them.

It’s fascinating how Mackin unfolds Coco and Schiap. Coco grew up extremely poor in an orphanage, suggesting her designs were a nod “to the subdued colors of austere orphanage life.” Schiap’s rich Roman family gave her a lust for a vibrant life.

Schiap believed “fashion is art, not just craft.” Likewise, Jeanne Mackin’s canvas expresses more than the skills of her craft. Artistically, she chooses three colors for her palette and focus, enabling her prose to communicate the multi-hued emotions, loyalties, and atmosphere during a multi-faceted time in France’s history.

Lorraine

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Pickle’s Progress 2

A soulless marriage – implications for the soul of a city and a nation (Manhattan, presumably present day): Mammon is a word art and architecture critic for The Washington Post Philip Kennicott used to characterize Manhattan’s newest, “hated” architectural behemoth, Hudson Yards, writing it “exacerbates the worst tendencies of a city that seems hellbent on erasing anything distinctive or humane in its built environment.”

Mammon is a perfect word to summarize how you’ll feel about Marcia Butler’s three flawed, unhappy, coarse characters who make up an entangled marriage trio: an unlikable couple, Karen and Stan McArdle, and Stan’s identical-looking twin brother Pickle. They’ll get under your skin in this sizzling debut novel.

I looked up the meaning of mammon – intensifying greed and wealth to a debasing influence – but didn’t have to since the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist goes on to equate it to a vulgar mess. Like the trio.

You don’t have to like these characters to like what Butler has crafted. In fresh prose, she shows a vivid knowledge of Manhattan infused with her range of music and art sensibilities. Prose she contrasts with sarcasm, exasperation, anger, deceit to depict stuck, caustic, conflicted, hungry characters. Pickle is the most excessive abuser of profanity, but they’re all debased in one way or another, challenging us to examine what lies beneath all this vitriol?

The married McArdles are crass and deeply troubled but work as a power couple in a powerhouse city. An upper-class architectural team catering to rich New Yorkers, whose firm is cleverly located in the Lipstick Building, named for its shape, now infamously known as the place where Bernard Madoff ripped off billions in a scandalous Ponzi scheme.

For a city on the verge of losing the unique character of many beloved neighborhoods, a lost marriage serves as a microcosm for what many lament is a vanishing city. Greed and wealth hellbent on erasing iconic historical buildings and places, forcing out immigrants, minorities, artists who gave these neighborhoods so much color and individuality, to erect colossal, sterile environments. The novel is a voyeuristic view of a broken marriage that comes with a warning about the pervasiveness and perniciousness of excessive greed and wealth.

Pickle’s Progress reads like the work of a seasoned author. Butler is an accomplished artist in other art forms: lauded classical musician (oboe), interior designer, memoirist (The Skin Above My Knee), and documentarian whose film The Creative Imperative is due out in June. Her novel transfers these themes to a different art form.

Classical music helps Karen intuit the moods of a fourth key character: distraught, depressed Junie, who complicates these already compromised people and relationships. An emotional wreck, for an explicit reason unlike the others.

Junie is part of the dramatic opening scene: a car accident on the George Washington Bridge intersects with a suicide. Stan was driving, Karen beside him. Both drunk (as usual) and arguing (as usual) about a dinner party in New Jersey with friends they no longer had anything in common with. (They’re raising children, thankfully Stan and Karen are not, overly preoccupied with themselves and their competitive business.) Getting out of the car to inspect the damage, they spot a young woman (Junie) looking horrified on the bridge’s walkway. Her boyfriend has just jumped over the bridge. This is the moment their sad worlds collide.

Karen insists helpless Junie temporarily move in with them, into the upscale-decorated basement/garden level of their four-story architectural beauty, a brownstone on the posh Upper East Side. “Sneaky” and “pushy,” Karen seizes on the idea of having Junie buffer their bitter marriage knowing full well her presence will agitate an already agitated Stan. Junie ends up consenting, soon borrowing their classical musical collection, which resounds to the kitchen-level floor, further stressing out Stan.

But first Stan must call Pickle to fix things (as he’s done since childhood) before the police show up and discover he’s drunk. Pickle will rescue him, as a veteran of the NYC police force. Arriving in minutes, you might assume these twins are close. How could they be when their mother made sure Pickle never overshadowed her blatantly favored son who needed protecting. No accident Pickle opted for a gritty job protecting New Yorkers, a far cry from Stan’s uppity circle.

Childhood influences and abuse are essential to unraveling a trio mixed up in secrets and egregious behaviors debasing themselves. Disentangling this messy, sorry crew makes for fascinating character studies, open to interpretation. How did they get to the unwanted places they all find themselves in?

If it weren’t for reviews of the author’s memoir about her abusive childhood, we might not pay close enough attention to its impact on Pickle’s and Karen’s life, victims of reneged parental responsibilities and chronic abuse.

All three were raised by single-parents. The brothers by a conniving mother. Karen by a despicable father; a mother who deserted her and her younger sister. Both parents left indelible marks. Pickle has a hidden, softer side he barely shows, masked by his crudeness and slovenliness. Karen, a “cold strategist,” is “fiercely devoted” to her mother’s mantras to “always, always, go for the money” and “be beautiful.”

That she is, looking ten years younger than her forty-two-year-old self. Stan is somewhere in mid-life. A mistake to chalk up his crisis to a mid-life one. Tormented by demons, for starters he needs treatment to ease his obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Karen leaves creative design to temperamental “genius” Stan, runs everything else, making Stan look much better than he is. Abnormally fixated on organizing his life down to color-coordinating his socks and outfits, spices lined up in the kitchen, he’s unable to function in chaos, ironically causing it. We don’t feel empathy for him, maybe we should, but he’s so downright oppressive and irritable with everyone and couldn’t care less.

Even The Doodles – a gorgeous, impossible-not-to-love, very expensive, designer dog breed can’t find love from his unloving owners, so he quickly attaches to Junie. Dogs know when they’re not loved.

Golden Doodle, via Pixabay

An interesting element aids the plot:the topic of identical twins. Stan and Pickle share “Clark Gable” movie-star looks. Might that confuse one’s sexual attractions?

From Gone With the Wind, via Wikimedia

Butler further ups the ante with the trio’s dangerous real estate arrangement, yet to materialize but festering. Pooling their funds, all own a share of the coveted brownstone. Not a fair playing field on a policeman’s salary, but life hasn’t been fair to Pickle. (He deserves the title’s namesake.) He’s supposed to move into the upper two floors but Karen keeps stalling on the renovations. Perhaps Junie is another delay tactic? Why?

Pickle is not at all happy about waiting around (Stan seems oblivious) once Junie moves in, uncharacteristically attracted to her. He being a one-night-stand kind of guy, hardened for fragile Junie who seems childlike, not twenty nine years old, though she appreciates fine art and music. Pickle perceives her as “pristine,” as if she’ll wipe his slate clean.

The novel reads as if we’re watching a sobering movie involving a train wreck we sense is coming if things don’t drastically change. They do, but not how we expected.

Odd but revealing, the couple binge watch another family soap opera, Dallas. Beautiful, seductive actors and actresses starred in that long-running TV show that spanned the late 70s/80s/early 90s, revitalized in 2012. Seems we can’t get enough of the lust that has transformed too much of the city. A melancholy ode begging to preserve as much of its character left.

Can these characters be saved? Is Pickle’s progress a “breakdown or a breakthrough”? Will America breakdown or breakthrough in 2020?

Lorraine

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The Girl He Used to Know

A tender, timeless love story (Chicago 2001, 1991 backstory): Bet you’ll love this pleasure-to-read novel. Sensitive writer, sensitive characters, sensitively rendered romance.

Tracey Garvis Graves dedicates her new novel to “anyone who’s felt like they didn’t belong.” She could have also dedicated it to everyone who’s wished for a second chance, be it love or otherwise. The Girl He Used to Know encompasses both.

Great title. Another, less catchy, could have been The Woman She’s Become. On page 4, the protagonist, Annika, expresses the dual narratives of Then and Now: a “desire to replace the memories of the girl he used to know with the woman I’ve become.”

Structured so we can compare these two Annika’s – the more confident one the novel opens with in 2001 when she’s in her thirties, to her 1991 twenties-self attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a few hours outside of Chicago where she now lives. Over this ten-year span we see how Annika has changed, developmentally and socially, though some parts of her haven’t changed much. Not because she still has a neurological condition and is still head-turning beautiful. But because she’s stayed real and beautiful on the inside.

Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy
By John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Annika Rose has an exotic name that matches her “stark beauty.” Sharp cheekbones, big blue eyes, blond hair “almost white,” modeled on another gorgeous soul: Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, who shockingly perished in a plane crash in 1999 along with her sister and husband, beloved by all, John F. Kennedy Jr.

If you know anyone diagnosed as high-functioning on the autism spectrum, you’ll recognize Annika. Forget labels, stereotyping. Rather, it’s how Graves shows and tells us what it feels like to be Annika, giving her characteristic traits yet shaping her not comically as other novels have done but deeper, compassionately.

Annika is the vulnerable star of this literary show. Two other characters are her stellar supporting cast: Janice and Jonathan, who accepted her in college, made her feel for the first time in her life she did belong, watched her back, loved her. We could all use a Janice and a Jonathan in our lives. One a blessing; two miraculous for a girl who felt “all my life I’ve been an embarrassment to myself.”

The formula for why the novel sings: pitch-perfect dialogue; Annika’s refreshing honesty; Annika’s learning the importance of accepting herself; the extent true love can go; and smart, informed writing that briskly alternates between two narrators’ perspectives (Annika’s voice and Jonathan’s) from two time perspectives.

If it weren’t for Janice, the best roommate in the world, Annika was paired up with freshman year, Annika probably would have dropped out by the end of the first week, since she almost did. Janice’s perceptiveness and kindness saved Annika, steering her to two things she loved most: chess and animals.

Chess club led Annika to Jonathan, assigned to play chess with her during senior year. Chess and volunteering at an animal clinic sustained her; environments where she could block out the noise in her head brought on by overwhelming social anxieties. Chess was a place she felt “I almost fit in”; animals needed her and gave unconditional love. The victim of bullying (home-schooled by seventh grade), no surprise she “simply preferred the company of animals over most humans.”

On page 10, Annika tells us “her brain does not work like other people’s. I think in black-and-white. Concrete. Not abstract.” Literal thinking interferes with understanding the nuances and unspoken meanings of social cues, norms. Back then, Janice and Jonathan helped her navigate. Now Janice lives in New Jersey, married and the mother of a young child (still Annika’s best friend), while Annika and Jonathan haven’t connected since graduation. That’s when he moved to NYC for an investment banking job; she promised to follow him there but didn’t. To work through losing the person who was her “everything,” Annika now has a therapist named Tina talking her through putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Had she been able to do that with Jonathan back then, maybe things would have turned out differently.

Had he continued to put her needs over his perhaps they’d have stayed together, since “no one had loved me as fiercely and unconditionally as she did,” says Jonathan.

Jonathan made the wrong assumptions. Through a couple of twists of fate we don’t see coming – particularly towards the gripping ending – Graves makes sure we get her message about making assumptions.

The opening scene resonates. What would you do if you bumped into your first love, your one and only love? Annika assumed Jonathan was still living in New York, so what’s he doing in Chicago? Caught off guard, yet she’s been preparing for a moment like this, a second chance.

The burning question is whether Jonathan wants that too. Does he still care enough to be willing to push aside hurt/angry feelings after Annika failed to show up? Coming off of a painful divorce, is he still up for “peeling back Annika’s layers”? Ready for another serious relationship?

One thing that might help Jonathan is to see the progress Annika has made. Will he be struck by her bold move to a large city for someone extremely stressed by crowds? Will he note something must have changed now that she tells him she’s working in a busy setting – the main branch of the Chicago Public Library (books always a solace)?

If that doesn’t catch his attention, what does is she’s no longer dressed in long skirts two sizes larger for her “perfectly proportioned body,” so she couldn’t feel the texture of fabric touching her skin. Some sensations unnerved her, especially the sensation of someone touching her. Jonathan was the only person whose touch didn’t jar her. “His touch grounded me and made me feel like nothing bad could ever happen.” Today the woman he meets is dressed to accentuate her femininity. Will he desire to touch her again, intimately?

Annika used to be someone who couldn’t bear people entering her “personal space.” Sound familiar? The novel drops us right into the Me Too era.

Jonathan was initially attracted to Annika’s beauty, but once he appreciates the ease he feels around her, she becomes “much more than a pretty face.” What does that say about getting to know people with disabilities who might not be as physically attractive?

Annika’s conversation used to be simplistic, straightforward, as she didn’t have any filters or experience with men. “Do you want to kiss me”? “Were you flirting with me?” she innocently asks, to which Jonathan charmingly responds: “I was trying to. I thought I was halfway decent about it, but now I’m not so sure.”

Gentle and patient, he teaches Annika how to make love, assuring her he’d never hurt her. Ironically, she hurt him.

Back then it was impossible for Annika to gaze into someone’s eyes, even Jonathan’s. If he and we could see her now: also working with children, interestingly teaching them how to act (in theater) and playwriting, we imagine her smiling and looking straight at them. They love and accept her for the authentic, loving person she is. (She also continues to care for animals.)

Learning to accept others, see their gifts. Be real, honest. Be kind to and look out for others. Why is this so hard for us to do in 2019? An extraordinary love story with implications for all.

Lorraine

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The Salt Path: A Memoir

Finding the strength to move on (from Wales to the South West Coast Path, England; 2012-2013): You “can never have enough memories,” says Raynor Winn, after her world fell apart at fifty. That’s after: thirty-two years married to her beloved Moth; raising two children now away at college; spending twenty years making their Welsh farm home their own, the land and animals precious to them; losing the source of their income; wiping out their bank account after an investment went sour, fighting a three-year legal battle that failed on a technicality, losing it all.

Catastrophic loss, yet not as earth-shattering as being told the very next day Moth’s shoulder pain and stiffness was due to a rare, progressive neurological disease – corticobasal degeneration, symptoms Parkinson’s-like. If he was lucky and took it easy, maybe he had two years left to live.

After all that gut-punching, would you still be able to say, like the author does, “I chose hope”? 

The couple’s response, coupled with soul-searching prose and vivid nature writing, turned into this moving debut, The Salt Path: A Memoir.

Be prepared to like this devastated couple a lot. For the author’s piercing voice pleading “don’t take him, you can’t take him. He’s everything, he’s all of it, all of me.” For Moth’s generosity, the kind of person who’d take the shirt off his back, because he did. (Gave away their last piece of fudge and coins to someone he felt worse off than he.) For this couple’s “passion that didn’t die,” a gift that together gave them the strength to do something wild and inconceivable. The “wild was never something to fear or hide from. It was my safe place, the thing I ran to, says the “farmer and farmer’s daughter” writer.

If only she was writing fiction. Too cruel to make up. So you’ll read wishing the book doesn’t end. We don’t want to know Moth’s final verdict. 

Raynor Winn “desperately needed a map, something to show me the way,” so in an act of desperation she came up with an audacious idea, inspired by another British nature writer’s guidebook – Paddy Dillon’s Five Hundred Mile Walkies – to trek 630 miles along one of the most spectacular nature walks in all of walkable England, a top ten walking path in the world: the South West Coast Path.

It traverses the windswept, rocky North Devon and North Cornwall coasts along the westerly Atlantic Ocean side of Britain headed south, until landing at Land’s End, the furthest point west, where the trail turns eastward, gets physically less strenuous and more populated, this being the southern English Channel side.

Dillon made it sound so much easier than it was; his pace far outpaced theirs. In fact, this extreme endurance journey is said to equal climbing Mount Everest four times! As long as the Winns could keep moving, they’d escape what-to-do-next realities. Motivation the author needed more, it seems, than Moth. 

Putting themselves in Mother Nature’s hands without creature comforts and enough money called for enormous stamina, positivity, coping skills. “Wild camping” where the weather is often brutal and suddenly, dramatically changes is a formidable undertaking. The winds roared even when it wasn’t raining or pouring so hard it hurt. Backpacks, clothes, tent, sleeping bags all soaked, damp, or misted wet, the worst conditions for Moth whose body didn’t take kindly to the cold and overexertion. Add in funds drained so low they couldn’t afford top-of-the-line outdoor equipment, and having to lug around seventeen pounds of whittled-down essentials on Moth’s already aching back.

The two set off on the path with 50 pounds (roughly 65 dollars exchanged today) to their name, which had to stretch until Moth’s monthly disability check came due, amounting to just 30 pounds. Imagine sustaining yourself through “extreme physio” on noodles, rice, candy (“fudge for breakfast, fudge for lunch, and it was looking like fudge for dinner”), occasionally a little tuna. Starving or when the funds finally came through, splurging on Britain’s famous chips, pasties, ice cream when the temperature was unexpectedly scorching, sheltering in cafes for hours on end, sharing a free cup of hot water and a lonely tea bag. But first they had to reach a village, come out of the remoteness, find a bank. For months and months.

Once, the coveted pasty was free too. Normally tossed out at day’s end but a disgruntled restaurant employee they bumped into treated them to a much- appreciated meal not out kindness but anger at a boss. No food banks to help others also having hard times? Restaurants in America alone waste 63 million tons of food a year by some accounts. 

Another social issue, another cloud that hung over them, making a larger statement about what it means to be homeless, in rural areas. A phenomenon not well-known even to researchers. Difficult to quantify, difficult to identify, not just in England but here at home. 

They call them the “hidden homeless”. Homelessness is typically associated with cities as it’s out in the open on streets, benches, under overpasses. Yet in Britain alone, data show a 40% increase in rural homelessness over a recent six-year period. A US report confirms homelessness in rural America is also rising. A problem, apparently, not on our radar like the urban plight.

One might assume a less judgmental attitude toward those homeless communing in Nature. The truth is no matter where you are people look down on the homeless – as they did toward the Winns. Not everyone, but considering how few encounters over hundreds of miles (mostly dog walkers) too many did. Strangers labeled them “tramps,” stereotyping one or both as afflicted with addiction and/or mental illness, rather than a series of unfortunate events or a single crushing defeat. 

Calling themselves “edgelanders,” this is a story of literally walking and living on the edge. Even finding a flat, comfortable place to pitch a tent (the western coast covered with coarse heather and gorse) was challenging, plus they had to stay out of sight of a possible passerby since wild camping is “technically illegal in England and Wales.” 

By now you’re wondering what the South West Coast Path is like. Narrow, it runs up and down sweeping cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to beaches, coves, fishing villages. Breathtaking landscapes, diverse ecosystems, marshes, wetlands, “salt-burned” trees, sand dunes, ancient geology. Touristy Cornish villages disorienting. Here are some images to give you a sense:

Geof Sheppard via Wikimedia Commons
Raimond Spekking via Wikimedia Commons

Roger Cornfoot via Geograph

neiljs via Flickr

The author brought a journal, the only way she could have captured the scenery, obstacles, details, emotions as rawly and clearly.

The most poignant moment happens at the beginning, when the author has to say goodbye to her nineteen-year-old sheep, Smotyn. No one would want this aged sheep; somehow she sensed that. The author discovered her “in her favorite spot under the beech trees, her head laid out on the grass as if she were sleeping. She knew. She knew she couldn’t leave her field, her place, and had simply died.” That’s when Winn breaks down, when we first feel the enormity of her loss. Animals have a unique way of communicating what we cannot bear to.

Soon after, the author saw a way to give them a purpose. Follow the path, see how far they could get, how far it would take them. This “wasn’t just about being homeless; it was about achieving something.”

Which they did, expressed in a beautiful message inscribed on a bench in Cornwall: “Meet me there, where the sea meets the sky. Lost but finally free.”

That tells you all you really need to know about the ending.

Lorraine

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A Woman Is No Man

Refusing to be silenced (Brooklyn 2008; Palestine to Brooklyn 1990s backstories): Etaf Rum is a brave writer. She says as much in a Dear Reader note in an advanced reader copy and the preface to her debut novel, A Woman is No Man, confiding she was “constantly swallowed by fear” writing it, yet she broke a “culture of silence.” 

She must be brave to create a dark plot about arranged marriages in strict, conservative Arab families that isolates Palestinian women with emotional and physical abuse, risking perpetuating negative stereotypes about Rum’s own immigrant community at a time when hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiments are sharply on the rise in America and globally. “Surely I’ll only upset people and fuel further discrimination already stereotyped by a single story. It would be the ultimate shame,” Rum says. Yet she dares doing so anyway.

Clearly, something else is afoot. Presumably something the author felt morally compelled to write, saying:

“You’ve never heard this story before. No matter how many books you’ve read, how many tales you know, believe me: no one has ever told you a story like this one.” 

Her compelling novel is set in Brooklyn, where Rum was born and lives, perhaps in the same Bay Ridge multicultural community her characters dwell. Bay Ridge is depicted as close-knit. “It was as if all the Arabs in Brooklyn stood hand in hand, from Bay Ridge all the way up to Atlantic Avenue, and shared everything, from one ear to the next. There were no secrets between them.” So why reveal secrets, whether there’s any truth to them or well-fictionalized we perceive these truths to be real? Rum’s confidences about her fears lead us to believe she is exposing truths meant to stay behind closed doors. Why raise the stakes of dishonoring her culture, in which honor and “reputation is everything”?

Rum’s objective, she says, is to highlight the “strength and resiliency” of Arab women. You may see this in one or more of her four main female characters. On the other hand, you may feel overwhelmed by the weakest one, Isra, so battered by loneliness, despair, identity loss, and relentless physical assault she descends into such “paralyzing shame” she becomes ashamed of even existing. Isra endures over the years, but the cost is a shell of a human being, “an empty heart.” 

Will the novel be seen as an act of betrayal? Or, a contemporary woman’s activism to be the voice for the “voicelessness [that] is the condition of my gender”? Will the reader be inspired by defiant characters, or pained by the obedient ones?

Book clubs have plenty to talk about as the novel raises contentious cultural issues in a multilayered, generational approach. 

Four Palestinian women – the two oldest are immigrants, the two younger born in America – show how past cultural traditions keep repeating (the older generations) while their children resist and defy the limits placed on them simply because they’re female. Whose voice will the reader hear? The older ones who believe “obedience is the only path to love”? The younger ones struggling to find “the courage to stand up for yourself, even if you’re standing alone”?

The older women immigrated to Brooklyn from two cities in the West Bank of Palestine, disputed territory in the Israeli-Palestine Peace process.

Their storylines are outlined below, from oldest to youngest:

1. Fareeda: came to the US from a Palestinian refugee camp. Survived poverty, married off in her teens, mother of three sons and a daughter (see Sarah below.) Her influence intensifies as the plot does. She clings to a narrow view of women restricted to the home, that a daughter’s sole purpose is to cook, clean, serve, and become a mother who will give birth to boys; girls are a disgrace, a burden, a curse – the jinn. Men bear burdens too, financially obligated to support their family. Adam, her eldest, bears the brunt, reflecting immigrants “working like dogs,” which plays out destructively when he goes to Palestine and brings home eighteen-year-old Isra through another arranged-for-marriage. It’s their marriage, their sad, abusive story, that overpowers the others. 

2. Isra: unhappy when we meet her at 17. Forced to leave her homeland, her parents, and her pastoral home overlooking fig and olive trees. Raised by a traditional mother who subscribed to the same beliefs about women as Fareeda; a mother who expressed no love or warmth, also like Fareeda. Isra grabs our hearts, so quiet and submissive all she can do is hope that in the land of the free she’ll find love and freedom. Not so when she keeps giving birth to daughters – four in all. She’s the victim of Adam’s anger, angst, exhaustion. Sometimes he unexpectedly hits her over the slightest thing; other times Isra knows when he’s coming for her. 

3. Sarah: Fareeda’s only daughter. Supposedly married off but no one has heard from her. She befriended Isra when she and Adam came to live under Fareeda’s dark roof, in a depressing basement.

4. Deya: Isra’s oldest daughter, the youngest of the four. It’s her melancholy/distraught/confused/questioning narrator’s voice we hear. Yet it’s Isra’s voice from the past that haunts the novel, haunting Deya too. She misses her mother who died when she was eight. That’s ten years ago by the time she tells us these tangled stories. Told her parents died in a car accident, Deya yearns to know more about Isra so she can remember her beyond recalling how unhappy she seemed. If only Fareeda would tell her something perhaps she wouldn’t feel so abandoned and unloved. Fareeda’s silence turns the novel into a mystery as we become suspicious of what really happened to Isra.

Rum’s prose has a gentle rhythm to it. But Isra’s tale, and the sequestered world of these women, isn’t gentle at all. 

One wonderful exception: books are life-savers for these women (except Fareeda). Books are literally the only source of their happiness, dreams, and sense of love. Through literature they “dreamed of bigger things – of not being forced to confirm to conventions, of adventure, and most of all love.” But reading is a major feat, acquiring books and then having to hide them. 

Deya’s world is insular, yet she fights to change it. She wants to go to college, refuses Fareeda’s constant attempts to marry her off. (Note: while Isra didn’t have any choice about Adam, today’s Deya does, though her life made miserable by Fareeda.) Deya’s story is an uphill battle to challenge stereotypes, aware there are other “Arab families who firmly believe in educating their women.’’ 

Deya is confused though. She’s taught in her Islamic studies class women are meant to be respected. But she (and her female classmates) can’t understand her teacher when he asserts “heaven lies under a mother’s feet.” They can’t even answer his question: What is the role of women in their society today?

Rum’s answer: it’s changing. But in order for women to feel they belong in this country they need to “belong to ourselves first,” otherwise, “it’s hard to belong anywhere.”

It seems fair to say belongingness is complicated to navigate for most immigrants. For these women (except Fareeda), it’s made tougher because they feel unwanted in their own home.

Inclusion, self-determination, and freedom are not just messages for Palestinian-American women, but for women everywhere struggling to be heard.

Lorraine

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